News flash, and this should not come as a surprise, but maybe once you hit your 50’s the bottom bunk in a dorm of 20 something backpackers may not be the wisest choice. It is after midnight on a Wednesday and the young guests talk in whispers and quiet giggles as they get to know each other and make a new, and temporary family while they are far from home. It is clean and modern and is not a “party” hostel, at least not tonight but still I cannot sleep. Rob and I have taken the bottom bunks in our 4 person dorm as we are the most likely ones to need a middle of the night trip to the bathroom. Of course we were the first ones to head off for sleep and despite my ear plugs, the snores coming from the bunk above, the oppressive heat and the smell of 4 pairs of sweaty, backpacker shoes (my own included) has kept the sandman away. So here I sit writing.
I suspect these youngsters do not know what to make of us. “Mom and Dad” ruining the vibe. We ate lunch at a cafe today and the young waitress who served me noticed we were riding bicycles. She struck up a conversation, as these New Zealanders are likely to do, and the topic of my children came up. She asked how old they were and at my reply said, “No that is crazy, they are my age. That means you are the about the age of my mom… and she is very old”. Touché, my dear, touché. At times like tonight, sleeping in a dorm bed at a backpackers hostel, I feel very old and just a little out of place. I wonder what the hell we are doing, living like gypsies, sleeping with strangers? Tomorrow we will be back in the Hubba Hubba, our cosy tent as we continue our journey down the length of New Zealand and one thing is sure, these crazy Kiwi’s will keep surprising us with their hospitality.
We have been here about three weeks and have a growing list of contacts in our phones to use “in case you run into trouble, dear”. Random people see the bikes and strike up a conversation which usually ends something like this. “If you happen to find yourself in Gisborne, be sure to come by and stay with me”.And here’s the crazy thing, they really mean it. If two tired and stinky cyclists happen to turn up on Ruth from Gisborne’s door step, I am sure she would be pleased as punch and pick up the conversation where we last left off!
A few days ago we took a 6 hour boat charter in order to cross the Hokianga Harbour, part of the Tour Aotearoa route.We arrived rested and decided to ride into Auckland that night.A 5:30 start meant we would likely run out of daylight but we hoped to hit the cycle way into the city before dark, allowing us to avoid the morning rush hour traffic which is not a fun experience on New Zealand’s busy highways. The ride took longer than expected and before we knew it we were riding in the pitch black along a secondary highway. About 25 km outside the city limits, a car passed us, slowed down and then pulled over to wait for us to ride by. Despite our lights, we expected to get a good scolding for being out in the dark. The older man who greeted us, asked where we were going at this time of night and then questioned if we had a place to stay lined up in Auckland. After our non-committal response he suggested we follow him home and, if it was up to our “standards”, he had an old caravan in his yard that we were welcome to stay in for the night. Then tonight at dinner, the cafe owner came over and sat down with us and started chatting. The next thing we knew, we were invited to camp in his yard tomorrow night, “no worries mate, I have lots of space, a salt water pool and you can enjoy a beautiful sunset there”. I am not kidding, hasn’t anyone told these people about stranger danger? Why are they so doggone nice?
It makes me think of a time, not so long ago, in our own country where we were more likely to pick up a stranger by the side of the road, or open our door to a person in need. To take the time to sit and talk with someone and actually listen to them. What has happened to us? Are we too busy, too self involved or just too afraid?Afraid of them, the mass of humanity out there? Or are we afraid of ourselves and what that mass of humanity may think of us if we step outside our comfort zone and put ourselves out there ripe for rejection?
Food for thought.
Ear plugs in and now its off to try and find some good dreams. Good night.
I believe it is better not knowing what lies ahead. For one thing, knowing takes away the fun and makes the journey a long, predictable slog to the finish line. For another, if we knew how hard something was going to be our instinct for preservation would likely kick in, causing us to steer clear of anything to difficult or painful. Marriage, parenthood, building a small business are all examples from my own life of things I thought I understood until reality stepped up and slapped me in the face. Life is hard, let’s be honest. Life is effort and work but once you accept this, quit complaining about it and just get on with it, it suddenly becomes a little less hard.
So, while I am feeling philosophical about the struggle called living, let me just say this. What the flying f@#k was I thinking when I decided to it would be “fun” to bicycle the length of New Zealand. 3000km from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island plus additional side trips along the way. This land is not flat people! After grunting my way up one hill, I find another waiting to be scaled. I’ve been eating my way through the Caribbean, Christmas holidays and Mexico (oh Mexico, how I love all your delicious foods, especially your churros) for the last 3 months and am woefully out of shape. This is gonna be hard. But here I am, about 400km in and too stubborn to turn back. When I question whether I can do this, my patient husband reminds me to focus on today and then reassures me, we will get stronger. It is fun to have an adventure, it is rewarding to propel myself forward by my own power and it feels good to know I will survive and be (hopefully) more fit by the end. Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up my philosophy on life. Don’t be afraid to try something new (have an adventure), how you choose to live and the life you build is up to you (you have to be the one to propel yourself forward) andwe need struggle to develop resiliency (you will survive and be stronger for it).
Back to the bicycle journey. We have always wanted to visit New Zealand but the long distance from Canada and limited holiday times in years past, made it a trip we kept putting off. Having enjoyed cycle touring in Cuba and Montenegro we started researching cycling in New Zealand. A trip into the google-o-sphere led us to so many great websites on bikepacking (essentially a combination of mountain biking, cycle touring and camping) in general and in New Zealand in particular. Check out bikepacking.com and bikepackingnewzealand.com. During this research we also came across the Tour Aotearoa (TA), one of the worlds great bikepacking trips stretching the entire length of both islands and linking together cycle trails, paths and lanes connected by the most enjoyable back roads availabe/ Jonathan Kennett, a cycle guidebook writer in New Zealand, originally organized the ride as a Brevet event in 2016. As the popularity of bikepacking grows within the cycle community, so does the popularity of this ride which continues to run as an organized event every 2 years in February/March. 2019 is an “off” year however like us, many people are riding the TA simply to experience New Zealand from the seat of a bicycle.
Arriving in Auckland January 27, 2019, we spent the first few days with a wonderful Warm Showers host building our bicycles, replacing a damaged rear derailleur and warming up our legs with a 40km ride around the city.
Having discovered the joys of mooching off complete strangers, we then hopped an Intercity bus north to Whangerei to stay with Mac and Jennifer Lawrence, the sister and brother-in-law of our good friends Mick and Michelle Skuce. After 2 days exploring the area with our wonderful hosts we remembered that “guests, like fish, start to smell after 3 days” and decided to start our journey North. Jennifer and Marc were kind enough to transport us to our starting point so we could avoid the busy SH1 and ride towards the Bay of Islands on quiet back roads. We wound our way along the East coast to arrive in Russel 2 days later.
Warm rain followed us from Russel, across the passenger ferry and most of the way to Kaikohe as we started our 3 day loop to Horeke and back to Kerikeri on the Twin Coast Cycle Trail, one of the so called “Great Rides” of New Zealand.
After an amazing meal at the Mint, a restaurant in an old Bank in Kaikohe we set up camp first for our first night at the Cow Shed Campground. Pretty much an old Dairy farm outside Kaikohe which has converted a cow shed into a basic kitchen, toilet and makeshift lounge area. It was a peaceful spot with a level grassy field to pitch a tent.
Day two found us enjoying our first of many New Zealand pies for breakfast at Len’s Pies and cycling on towards Horeke. A little research over our breakfast pie suggested there were few camping options near Horeke so we called the Rail Stay, a B&B outside Okaihau to see if they might have a tent spot available that night. We were in luck and despite the owner being away in Auckland, she said she would return that afternoon.We were welcome to drop our bags and continue out to Horeke and back without our gear, lightening our bikes significantly and increasing our enjoyment of this more hilly portion of the trail ten-fold!
Following our return ride to the east coast we stayed in Waipapa just outside Kerikeri with another wonderful Warm Showers host before heading North to Kaitaia and finally on to start our ride from Cape Reinga. We were feeling anxious to get started on the TA route but were forced to determine our start date based on when we could get a transfer across Kaipara Harbour as well as the tide table for our ride down 90 mile beach.On February 8 we took a shuttle to Cape Reinga and after walking to the lighthouse decided to head to 90 mile beach and start that afternoon.
There is approximately a 6 hour window starting 3 hours before until 3 hours after low tide, where the sand is hard enough for easy cycling.Easy, however, is a relative term. Yes the beach is flat but…it is flat! No challenging climbs but no zippy downhills to rest our tired legs or butts. I am now intimately acquainted with Butt Butter (and in case you are wondering slathering your bottom in a greasy lube to prevent chaffing of your tender bits, isn’t as sexy as it might sound). Last year, on our ride around Cuba’s Orient, we would set off each morning into a headwind and so it felt like deja vu when we hit 90 mile beach beach and were buffeted by strong winds from the south east at 30 to 50km/hour. The wind slowed our already slow pace to a crawl, taking 2.5 days to ride the 103 km instead of our anticipated 1.5 days.
After our second night camping along the beach and fighting the wind, it was a relief to spot Aihapara in the distance.
After a big breakfast we headed off towards Broadwood and a camping area on our map.Beautiful rolling countryside, big climbs with long fun downhill rewards was a welcome change from the beach.
We arrived at our destination mid afternoon to discover everything in town closed due to it being Sunday. We decided to push on to Rawene and look for a camp spot there. Big hills, bigger hills and amazing landscapes kept us entertained as we worked our way deeper into Hokianga district, arriving at an amazing little hostel, The Treehouse.
Tomorrow it is off to the Waipou Forest and then Dargaville… to be continued.
Just read through this and realized it is quite a boring read. Apologies! To liven it up a bit, here are a few things I’ve learned about New Zealand:
-A cooler is a chilly bag.
-Your swim suit and towel is your togs.
-Sweet as means, ok good, cool.
-A Bach is a holiday house.
-A gravel road is a metal road.
-When I get bored riding the metal, I entertain myself counting the number of dead possums and hedgehogs I cycle by.
-A Dave is a dick.
-Kumara is a sweet potato and they make them into yummy fries.
-Motorists call cyclists Hoha’s (which I discovered pretty much means pain in the ass).
-Tramping is hiking.
-Kiwis (the birds) are little weirdos but pretty cool birds (no I have not seen one yet)! Kiwis lay one (or occasionally two) huge eggs compared to the size of the bird. When they hatch baby kiwis come out fully feathered and by 5 days are venturing out of the burrow and in some varieties leaving home by 6 weeks of age. This makes them very susceptible to predators. The Department of conservation (DOC) is working to reduce predators and will collect young kiwi and relocate them to predator free islands until they reach maturity at 4 or 5 years after which they are returned to the mainland.
-Kiwis (the humans) are generally fun loving, humble and kind. One host compared Canadians and Kiwis as being similar. Saying that having a big, brash brother living next door (Australia and America) has made us try harder to be friendly, polite and kind to make up for our brother’s behaviour.No offence to all my amazing American or Australian friends. I didn’t say it, just repeated it here …. but I will admit it made me smile and kinda made sense.
Every once in a while the universe steps up, slaps you in the face and reminds you what really matters in this life. It’s time to wake up, pay attention and ask yourself why are you here? This happened to me recently when I found myself in a little town in Mazunte Mexico to participate in a mass sterilization project with a group of veterinarians form the USA (see Viva Mexico, Viva Mazunte Project!). Connecting with people from different backgrounds and experiences over a common goal while making an impact on local pets, local people and also improving the survival of a threatened species was pretty amazing. But then again, I have been on a lot of amazing projects on my journey from successful practice owner to drop out veterinarian so why did this project make such an impression on me?
Graduating from veterinary school in 1991, I arrived on the scene as our profession was undergoing a rapid transition. My early years as a small town mixed animal doctor were marked by a collegiality between veterinarians and veterinary practices that is slowly disappearing from our profession. At conferences when I ran into my colleagues from the practice “down the road”, we would share a beer, a story and a laugh. We would sometimes disagree on the way to manage cases, clients and our practices but there was always an underlying current of support. A feeling like, we are all in this together. Over time I watched our profession become more competitive, my colleagues more guarded and the collegiality that once existed between veterinarians more rare. It feels we have become a profession of perfectionists, afraid to admit our human frailties and reach out to each other for support. And yet it is this humanity and humility that makes for a truly great veterinarian.
Meet Rich Rodger, a veterinarian, humanitarian and driving force behind the Mazunte Project. As I worked on the project and heard Rich’s story I felt compelled to share it. He leads with humility and integrity and is a “boots on the ground” kind of guy that inspires others to follow his example. To me, Rich embodies that spirit of collegiality our profession is at risk of losing and it is for this reason as well as the amazing work this group is doing, that I want to share his story of the Mazunte Project. In an effort to preserve Rich’s voice, I have edited his answers for clarity and brevity only. I hope you enjoy.
The first mass sterilization project in Mazunte was in 2001. Tell me about how the Mazunte Project came to be and the people involved in those early years.
Like you and Rob, I figured when I retired I would give back. That opportunity arose before I retired when Dr Bob Labdon decided in 1993 the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association needed an international group and asked who would be interested. In my usual fashion, I somehow missed the invitation. A friend of mine told me about it and said they were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic for 1994. I signed on and found that from the original group of 30+ volunteers, the only ones making the trip were Bob Labdon, Jay Merriam, Bob’s son, a former tech from Bob’s practice and myself.Bob was paying for three plane tickets plus most of the supplies. It was then I realized Bob’s dedication to making this group a reality. It became known as Project Samana. I was part of the Project for 7 years.
About 5 years into Project Samana I thought we should do something in Mexico, so with my good friend Dr David McCracken, we began making trips down here (Oaxaca coast).
I had called my Reproduction prof who I had played touch football with as a student as we had always gotten along real well. He put me in touch with Dr. Aline Schunemann de Aluja who was Professor Emeritus of Pathology at UNAM and was running an animal welfare program for Equids with funding from UNAM, IDT and an International Donkey Protection Agency. The provinces need more help than Mexico City. Oaxaca and Chiapas are the poorest states in Mexico.
Editors Note: Rich attended veterinary school in Mexico City (curriculum in Spanish) graduating from UNAM with honours in 1978. Following graduation Rich was involved in research as well as general private practice in North Grafton, MA.
We decided we would travel with them to see if we could establish a small animal arm within their group. So for two years David and I traveled with them doing spays wherever they were doing large animal work. There are a lot of stories within those two years that I’ll pass on for now. After two years, I told them I wasn’t seeing a situation where I felt we could make an impact (on the small animal side). The wife of the head veterinarian in our group suggested Mazunte where she had done an internship and knew they needed help controlling the dog population. There were no phone lines to Mazunte at the time, so she and her husband (David Oseguera and Eliza Ruiz) personally traveled to Mazunte and spoke to the director to see if he was open to us coming down there. He was, so we started planning our initial trip for January 2001.
Full circle, Bob Labdon was part of that first trip, as were Hugh Davis and Nancy Fantom, an intern from the MSPCA, Martha Smith, Peter Brewer (a vet whose family owned a zoo), Mark Smith, (an animal capture expert for zoos), Alan Borgal and Rigaud Lee from the Boston Animal Rescue League and myself.
The first day we set up in front of the San Agustinillo town hall to see if we could drum up any interest. We had a hard time because another group had preceded us, who were not as organized and lost a large number of their patients due to being hit by cars following surgery.
The following day we went out to Escobilla beach where we were darting the dogs and bringing them to surgery. There were four of us doing surgery (Bob, Hugh, Martha and I) while Nancy teched (term for a veterinary nurse or technician) with either Alan or Rigaud, and the one who wasn’t teching was out helping Mark and Peter dart dogs. While we were darting the dogs and doing the surgeries (we were already accustomed to operating on dogs with Ehrlichia from working in the Dominican Republic), a woman came up to me and said she could get the people to bring the dogs to us so we didn’t have to dart them. That helped a great deal, but we still had to dart the occasional dog to stay busy!
Editors note: Ehrlichia is a tick borne disease causing anemia and low platelet counts (amount other things) and making surgery more challenging.
We didn’t have a good site in Mazunte, so I think we spent 2 or 3 days in Escobilla on the beach, and 2 or 3 days in San Agustinillo at the Casa Municipal. I think all together we did 50+ dogs and less than 10 cats that first year. The second year we grew in numbers and sites. Pam joined us that year as did our daughter Becky, and David and Eliza, who were instrumental in starting the program.
Editors note: Compare this to 744 animals sterilized in 2019.
Porfirio Hernandez and Marcelino Lopez-Reyes were vets at the turtle center at the time. Neither of them did surgery that year, but helped tech, register patients and assisted in recovery. They both became more involved with the surgeries in subsequent years. Alan Borgal of the Boston Animal Rescue League tells a story about Marcelino that year. He relates that the first year we came, Marcelino ignored him or paid little attention to his/our efforts. The second year when we came back, he greeted Alan with a big abrazo that caught him completely off guard, since the year before he wouldn’t give him the time of day. We asked him about the change of heart, and he said “you came back”.
Why did you decide to start this initiative and/or what was the driving force behind it?
The decision to start the project goes back to vet school. Having gone to vet school here (Mexico), and seeing the needs back then has always been in my consciousness. Figuring out how to help crystallized with the success of Project Samana. The fact that we named it the Mazunte Project is to show they are sister projects. To Bob, Jay and I they always will be. There are a few others who have done both projects, Liz is one of them, Linda and our son and daughter (John and Becky) are others. As the years go by, each project takes on its own personality and connections are lost.
Committing to one project and place, helps me understand the nuances of the problems better and helps our focus and understanding of where we have to concentrate our efforts. Hopefully it will also help us encourage other groups to help on all three fronts: humans, pets and wildlife. Already our daughter wants to help on the human end, Pam does too. Even though those projects aren’t in action, they’re being conceptualized, which is one of the most important steps.
Describe how the campaign has changed and grown from those early days.
The growth has been incremental over the years, we grew from one team to two teams, then three, four and this year we went to five. Having Spanish speakers has been key to growth. For many years we stayed as two teams until we were able to get someone bilingual to allow us to expand.
Our numbers of animals sterilized has increased each year, due to both the growth in participants and increased responses of townspeople bringing their pets to be spayed, the latter being key.
The mission hasn’t really changed, since it has always been to help the turtles, other wildlife, dogs and cats and by extension, the people. We have always maintained a One Health attitude, with the emphasis on spay/neuter. Since 2012 we have tried to help him (Marcelino) out with Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue, forming a 501c3 in November of 2016 to more effectively fund raise for this group.
For you personally, what has been the most rewarding aspect of being involved with this initiative over the years?
I continue because I love being part of the enthusiasm this project engenders. I’m ready to turn over the leadership to others any time someone else wants to step in and would continue to participate even if it meant just being a translator.
I think I continue to bring new aspects to the project just because of my contacts down here. Today I was in a meeting at the Turtle Center discussing the feral dog problem on Morro Ayuta beach, and what role(s) we, could play in addressing it. We’ll see how it plays out. We are already planning for next year and will be adding two new towns down the road.
I think the other things that keep me involved are the constant changes and moving targets that need to be addressed. Once it’s on cruise control (if that ever happens), I’ll be glad to step aside knowing it’s (the Mazunte Project) in good hands. I know it would be in good hands now, if something happened to me, the “morphing” would just take place more slowly.
What are your hopes or aspirations for the Mazunte Project, moving into the next decade?
My hopes and aspirations for the project are multiple. More participation by Oaxaca vets would be nice. Marcelino needs a successor. Where do you find someone as selfless as he has been to run not only Palmarito (Sea Turtle Rescue), but the Iguanario and our efforts as well. I’m looking, but it would have to be a paid position, and I can’t foresee anyone bringing the energy and dedication he has brought to the position he created! Some of the biggest advances could be political if they ever take place. After that, I would like to see the cultural changes take place. If the market (for turtles and turtle eggs) goes, so does the poaching.
If people want to support the Mazunte Project and sea turtle conservation along the Oaxaca coast, how can they help?
There are a number of ways to help. First by participating in the Mazunte Project (becoming involved in the sterilization project each January), patrolling the beach (you would have to be able to identify the species of turtle by its tracks, and also be able to locate the nest), digging nests, acting as a guide for people in their native language, educating the public, (wherever you may be), spreading the word about what we do, and as always, financial support.
Education is a big one. It can simply be telling what we do, or even better, being able to describe the biology and plight of sea turtles and what measures need to be taken to reverse the Leatherback and Green turtles current decline in the Pacific. (Note: the Olive Ridley population is currently considered stable)
The best way to make a donation rests with the donor. Sustaining monthly donations are great! Donations can be made at www.palmaritoseaturtlerescue.org through PayPal (who takes a small percentage). If someone is going to make a one time donation, they can mail a cheque to:
Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue
6 Mahlert Ct.
Auburn, MA 01501
This insures that 100% of the donation will go directly to helping the sea turtles, I pay all the administrative costs.
People can also donate through our facebook page. Bottom line is every donation goes directly to helping the sea turtles.
Finally, is there anything else you would like people to know about the Mazunte Project or Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue?
Yes, if people shop Amazon, they can choose Amazon Smiles and list us (Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue) as their charity. If that occurred nationwide it would be a huge help! Ask everyone you know to sign us up as your charity on Amazon. Right now, I am guessing we have 30 or 40 people signed up which amounts to about $150 to $200 annually. If we had 300 or 400 people, the donations would increase by a factor of 10. Just imagine if we had 3000 or 4000 people.Just $1500 to $2000 would buy a lot of gasoline or pay an employee for 5 months!
Editors note:Marcelino and his employees use ATVs to patrol the beaches, collect turtle eggs and protect hatchlings. This year has been especially difficult with old ATV’s in need of repair or replacement.
Well, as Rich would say “that about sums it up”. I also asked Rich about the key players over the years and he responded by saying that the project has “been very fortunate with the talented and passionate people it has attracted”.He went on to list the many dedicated volunteers who return year after year to lend their skills as well as the many people who work behind the scenes and often go unrecognized but are equally important in the projects’ success. Given my fear of leaving someone out, I have decided not to list the many key players and volunteers who are instrumental in the success of the Mazunte Project. Please know you are appreciated, your efforts have not gone unnoticed and most importantly, you are making a difference.
If one more turtle makes it back to lay eggs on the beach from where it was born, does anyone care? I do and so should you.
The world is full of people who want to make a difference. People who are idealistic, people with drive and focus, people with a specific skill set, people with a mission, people with positive energy.The problem is getting all of these people working as a team where they are willing to set their own ego aside, in order to collaborate and work together, towards a common goal. Those of you working in the veterinary industry can probably relate to how difficult this is in “our world”. Dysfunctional teams seem to be the norm rather than the exception and when you find a team that truly embraces and lives the meaning of the word team, (ie. they’ve got each other’s backs and build each other up daily) hang on for dear life and count your blessings that you found your tribe.
It may behoove the veterinary profession to take a look at the work of companies like Google. Much of the work carried out at Google is done by teams (sound familiar) and researchers at google have taken the time to look at the secret of effective teams. Project Aristotle, a code name based on Aristotle’s quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” was Googles attempt to answer the question “What makes an effective team?”The results shouldn’t surprise us and yet I see our profession still struggling to get this right. Without getting into a long winded discussion about what constitutes a team, (an interdependent work group that plans, solves problems and needs each other to get shit done) and what constitutes effective (depends on the situation but lets just say its getting the shit done that your team leader wants you to get done in an efficient, cost effective and timely fashion) what did Google’s Project Aristotle learn?After accounting for bias and other variables as well as conducting hundreds of double blind interviews, what came through loud and clear was this. What made a difference to team effectiveness was less about who was on the team and more about how the team worked together. Sorry all you smarty pants but just because your team is full of people with a high IQ, it does not necessarily have a positive correlation with positive outcomes and an effective team. In order of importance, here are the things that had the biggest positive impact on team performance:
1. Psycological safety: This refers to the individuals perception of the consequences of taking and interpersonal risk. In lay terms it is feeling safe to speak up without fear of consequences. Do your team mates have your back and create a safe space for dissenting opinions without fear of belittling, punishment or embarrassment.
2.Dependability:Members reliably complete work on time with no shirking of responsibility.
3.Structure and Clarity:Individuals understand their role on the team and have a clearunderstanding of expectations and consequences.
4.Meaning:Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the outcome.
5.Impact: The subjective judgement that your work is making a difference.
Finally I would like to add my own 2 cents, for what it is worth:
6.Appreciation: Team members need to feel their work is not only meaningful and impactful but also appreciated. A heartfelt thank you goes a long way, whether from the team leader, team mates or the public you serve.
A veterinary volunteer projects is a special type of team. In order to meet its goals, it has to find a way satisfy all these positive predictive factors in a very short period of time. Add to this the fact that volunteers come from a widely diverse set of experiences, backgrounds and represent a wide range of personality types. Finally consider that many volunteers are experiencing various levels of culture shock and personal discomfort as they are visiting a new country where weather, food and cultural conditions may be vastly different from “home”. Considering all of this, it amazes me that any veterinary project can strive to meet the criteria of effective teams as laid out by Google’s Project Aristotle, and yet the Mazunte Project succeeds in doing just that.(See “Adventure Awaits: Reflections on Hobbits, Home and Veterinary Volunteerism” for more tips on what to look for in a volunteer project abroad.)
The maze of international animal welfare or veterinary spay and neuter projects is a bit of a rabbit hole. Once you enter the warren, it can take you to places and experiences you never imagined. Rob and I first heard out about the Mazunte Project over a year ago, and started firing off emails in an attempt to learn more about this cool project and see if we could “charm” our way onto it! Our efforts put us in touch with an amazing human being, Rich Rodger, someone I am now proud to call a friend and who I aspire to emulate in the years remaining to me. In a roundabout way, Rich along with a small group of passionate people including Hugh Davis and Nancy Fantom (my team leaders in 2019) organized the first sterilization project back in2000. Over the past 19 years, the Mazunte Project has grown from that small team of 9 people to approximately 50 volunteers in 2019. What started as a small grass roots organization has grown to include not only a team of dedicated volunteers (mostly from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Michigan) but also a team of students and mentors from Michigan State University, and most recently a collaboration with La Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca (UABJO), the veterinary school in Oaxaca. Add a couple of Canadians and you have a true cross border collaboration. Pretty cool indeed!Note: plans are underway to interview Rich and write a blog on the history and his experiences over 19 years of organizing the Mazunte Project.
Over the past 19 years, visiting small villages up and down the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, this group has made not only a positive impact on the health of local dogs but by reducing dog overpopulation in the region, it has also reduced dog predation of sea turtle eggs and hatchlings and is slowly changing attitudes towards animal welfare and conservation in the region. Rich and other volunteers described to me the packs of dogs that used to be found on the beaches and nesting grounds of Golfino (Olive Ridley), Black (Green), Hawksbill and Leatherback sea turtles in the early years of the project.Unsterilized dogs, reproduce quickly and too many dogs leads to hungry animals competing for food.Beaches full of turtle eggs turn into a food source for the local dogs. In addition, for many years the local people of the Oaxaca region harvested turtles and eggs for food and export.In 1991, the Mexican Government banned the harvesting of turtles and eggs and in 1994 the Turtle Center was established with the goal to provide education, protection and research for the local sea turtle population. One of the key players at Palmarito Turtle Conservation is Dr. Marcelino Lopes-Reyes.A veterinarian of boundless energy and passion for animals. He has been a driving force behind turtle conservation in the area, patrolling beaches, relocating nests, finding villages for our teams to visit and encouraging local people to sterilize their dogs. In 2019 the Mazunte Project visited 30 villages and the final count of dogs (and cats) sterilized up and down the Oaxaca coast came in at 744. Considering the conditions we are working in and the fact that teams had 5 days to come together and form a successful MASH unit, it is beyond impressive. Even more impressive to me, was the comaraderie and positive energy of this group. Bitching, complaining and big egos have no place on effective teams. There seemed to be an underlying understanding that we were here to get a job done and have fun doing it!
After spending two weeks working with the Mazunte Project, it is obvious their work is having an impact. On arrival I was impressed with the healthy (even fat in some cases) appearance of the local dog population, not only in the tourist areas of Mazunte, San Augustinillo and Zipolite but also in most of the small rural villages we visited. With time and education, attitudes towards animal welfare are changing. I was very fortunate to visit several of the more remote beaches and see turtle nesting grounds as well as witness a mass hatching of Olive Ridley turtles following a recent Arribada. A small group of volunteers were up early and headed off to see if we could help a few more hatchings make it to the ocean. During the 3.5 hours we were on the beach I saw one pack, of 5 dogs, roving the beach and digging up turtle eggs.Given the number of dogs on this beach 20 years ago, this is a huge reduction.
As a species, humans have been too successful. Our growth and our greed are destroying the planet. It is what successful organisms do but it is at the expense of so many other species. On my more pessimistic days I feel overwhelmed and wonder how “Mother Nature” has any hope against us? But then, I wake up, look around and see how much beauty we still have left and know we cannot let it go without a fight. It is awe inspiring to see these cute little guys, emerge from the sand and struggle against all odds to complete an ancient journey. A journey deeply embedded in their genetic code which we as humans struggle to understand. I was told for every 100 turtle hatchlings, only 2 make it back to nest again on the same beach. The odds are stacked against them and still they don’t give up. We need to follow their example. Go outside, look around and find what inspires you, what leaves you awestruck and fight for it in some small way. After seeing what a small group of passionate people have created and the impact it has had I am inspired that we can still make a difference. Thank you Mazunte Project, don’t give up.
Every dollar you give goes directly to turtle conservation, not administration costs. Dr. Marcelino needs a new ATVs to patrol the beaches at night and protect nests as the old one they are using is finally beyond repair. Every dollar you give, will be put to good use. You don’t have to be a veterinarian or veterinary technician to help. Every dollar you give helps as much, or more than the time we have given to this project. Every dollar is appreciated.
It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out of your door… You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. – Bilbo Baggins
This morning as I sip a foul cup that passes for coffee, I realize it has been just over a year since we stepped off the hamster wheel and made some big changes in our lives. We have just finished a 5-week volunteer gig in the Caribbean and in a few days will swap our swimsuits for ski gear as we head home to Rossland, BC the most perfect place to spend Christmas. While I would like to think my gypsy heart would be happy to wander indefinitely, it knows that home is there, waiting quietly for my return. A little town, nestled in the mountains of BC and where my mind goes when I hear the word home. How lucky I am to have a home and to have it waiting patiently for me at the end of each journey.
Each time I return I am greeted by friends and acquaintances that make me feel like a minor celebrity and I realize the decision to step off the hamster wheel early is often misunderstood.I try not to cringe as I hear the question “how are you enjoying your retirement?” I really need to stop explaining that we are not retired, just making a change in our career and lifestyle goals because, why does it matter?To walk away from financial success in order to do more of the things I love, to give back in some small way and to explore new career options has been one of the best decisions of my life but it is not easy for everyone to understand. To be honest, learning how to live more simply and on less is a challenge and one I am still figuring out. We all think we need just a little more and we all spend to the limit (or beyond) our income. It isn’t an easy pattern to “unlearn”.
While home calls, waiting to wrap me in the warmth of its familiar embrace, the road continues to beckon, luring me with the thrill of the unknown. Since 2017 I have had the good fortune to spend approximately 20 weeks working as a volunteer vet on projects in 5 different countries and new opportunities await in 2019. I would be lying to say there have not been challenges. Challenging conditions, bureaucratic red tape, exhausting flights, and difficult people. Once hooked, working as a volunteer vet becomes like an addiction. Despite the dirt, the poverty, the overwhelmingly sad cases, I am a junkie waiting for my next fix, my next project.
This year, I am looking at veterinary volunteering with new eyes and with the hope of making international volunteer work more accessible to other veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Despite the personal rewards and experience gained, the cost of travel and finding time to volunteer is a huge deterrent for many veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Previous blogs have described the benefits of volunteer work (I am Published, Cool beans! and For the Love of Dog) as well as what makes for a great volunteer experience (Try the Goat) but what about the project itself? How do potential veterinarians and veterinary technicians choose from among the many projects in need of their expertise? How can you be sure you are making a difference and also have a fun, positive experience? The answer to this question is complex but can be broken down into two parts. First, taking an honest look at the reasons you want to go on a volunteer trip and second considering the project, its leadership, and goals.
If you have never dipped your toe in the world of veterinary volunteerism, it is difficult to know what to expect and how you will react to challenging conditions. Picture yourself working in a hot, dirty, smell environment with cockroaches in the dog food bin. Consider your ability to practice veterinary medicine with limited tools and supplies. Will you laugh with delight to find drugs and suture only 2 years out of date instead of 6? How do you feel making a treatment decision using only a stethoscope and thermometer as your diagnostic tools? Are you adaptable to using unfamiliar drugs (what has been donated), unfamiliar anesthesia (what is available) and unfamiliar suture (always check its strength before using)? Finally, how will you react to the overwhelming need and neglect (by our Western standards) of so many of the animals in these countries? Can you work within the local cultural context and leave your judgment at home? My blog “Try the Goat” is an attempt to give volunteers some tips on having a great experience but as also a reminder that you need to be honest with yourself and decide if international work is right for you. If you need life’s little luxuries to be happy or if what you really need is a holiday, you may end up disappointed. If you see the world in black and white and cannot practice medicine without structure, familiarity and the organizational hierarchy of modern veterinary hospital, you may find this type of work stressful and anxiety-inducing. Finally, if seeing emaciated, neglected animals, and experiencing different cultural values associated with pet ownership is going to leave you either deeply enraged or deeply depressed, you may want to rethink your participation in an international veterinary project.
If after reading this you are still excited about offering your skills to a volunteer project, the next step is choosing a great project to join. Do a google search of “veterinary volunteer projects” and you will be overwhelmed with options. Start by narrowing the search to a certain region or part of the world, talk to colleagues who have volunteered and finally consider these key considerations when evaluating your participation in a specific project.
1.Does the project has a clear mission and clearly defined goals (ideally in writing) that guide the decisions of both the project leaders and the volunteers. Read these goals and make sure your ethics align with those of the project leaders. For example, on some projects, sick animals will not be treated unless the owner agrees to sterilization. Are there clear medical protocols and are expectations for volunteers clearly communicated? Clearly defined goals provide a uniform and consistent message to the local community and provide the most efficient and productive use of volunteers energy, resources and time.
2. Is there evidence of accountability? Nonprofit organizations, just like small businesses, need to be accountable to their volunteers and donors. Can the project document how donations are used? Do the organizers make efforts to track and evaluate the impact of the project on the local community and whether it is meeting its goals? Is the board willing to critically evaluate its’ impact and implement changes when it starts to veer off track? This can be a difficult thing for volunteers to evaluate but it worth your consideration. Full disclosure, when I began volunteering, I did not consider accountability. I wanted to escape, travel and experience veterinary medicine in a foreign country. These projects can be costly, you are likely using up your holiday time and you may also be giving up income or time with family in order to participate. With so many organizations looking for volunteers, consider your options and choose wisely.
3. Does the volunteer project respect the local culture and look for ways to become sustainable without outside support? This my friends is a lofty goal and I realize I am naive to expect long-term sustainability without foreign support, but it excites me when I see local community members supporting the project, being employed or trained by project leaders and ultimately becoming advocates for the project within their community.Consider if there is an education component to the project (is there a school program), are there local supporters who help with the logistics and organization of the project and do they work alongside the foreign volunteers and project leaders to deliver education, sterilization, and medical care? Is there a spirit of collaboration with the local animal care community or are local organizations displaced and disrespected?
4. Finally, is the project a fun, collaborative and positive experience for volunteers? Do volunteers feel respected, comfortable to ask questions and voice concerns without fear of being judged or shut down? Does leadership support a collaborative approach and foster an environment of improvement and learning? Do volunteers feel appreciated and supported? Are all volunteers, regardless of their experience, age or role on the project treated consistently with equal respect and perks? After leading a team for 20 years, I can confidently say, it is lonely at the top. Your team doesn’t care about your needs or how hard you work and nor should they. You took on this role and while it isn’t easy to stay positive and not let your personal biases influence your behavior and actions, at the end of the day, it is your responsibility. Before signing on to a project, talk to past volunteers about their experience, and be sure the time and money you spend in order to offer your skills we are rewarded with appreciation and respect.
After 5 months of working as a veterinary volunteer I am fully aware that I have the easiest job, just show up and work hard. I appreciate the countless hours of work that goes into organizing these projects. From bringing together leaders and volunteers with different backgrounds and personalities, to engaging the support of the local community. From fundraising and bringing the required drugs and supplies across international borders to staying focused and positive in the face of daily roadblocks that can be overwhelming. It requires a phenomenal work ethic, passion, and perseverance that often goes unrecognized and sometimes unappreciated.I tip my hat to all of you, the leaders with whom I have had the privilege of volunteering over the past 2 years.
So after all this thoughtful advice, my final comment is simple. Know yourself, do your homework and then stop overthinking it. Put on your pack, tuck in some lembas bread and open the door of your safe little hobbit hole. Step outside by placing one foot in front of the other as you walk through the Shire and into the great beyond. Adventure awaits, not for the strong or the brave, but for those with an open mind and a curious heart.
Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, We’ll wander back and home to bed. Mist and twilight, cloud and shade, Away shall fade! Away shall fade! – J.R. Tolkien
So here’s the thing; it is really flipping hot here. Hot and humid. Rivers of sweat sliding off my face and traveling down my body on a journey to some unknown ocean, hot. Why isn’t there a call for volunteer vets in Iceland?
So here’s the other thing; apparently there are about 3000 different species of mosquitos worldwide and scientific studies (the number of bites counted in one square inch of my exposed ankles) prove that all 3000 species are to be found in Carriacou.
So here’s the final thing; despite the heat and the mosquitos, it is good to be back volunteering. We arrived in Carriacou, a small island off the coast of Grenada about a week ago. Rob and I spent about 7 weeks here in April and May of 2018 (see Where the Heck is Carriacou) and are back for another 6 weeks working with this special project. When we were here in the spring, it was very dry and water on the island was scarce. Livestock, plants, and people were feeling the effects of low rainfall and water shortage. Now we are catching the end of the hurricane (rainy) season and the island is lush, green and cisterns are full.
We have been very busy since our arrival on the island, treating the usual array of skin diseases and parasites. Performing sterilization surgeries and health checks as well as 3 eye enucleations. We have had a number of poisoning cases (a common occurrence on the island), tick fever cases and the frustrating but ever-present cases of neglect or abuse. So many of the problems we see arise from lack of education and pet overpopulation. We are working to improve the condition of the animals and in turn the health of both the wildlife and humans who are impacted by diseases in our domestic pets. Some days are difficult and it can be too easy to judge the actions of others based on our own cultural mores.The goal of traveling and working with an open mind can be easily forgotten and my personal rule of “seeking first to understand” tossed aside.
Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another cultures’ mores, values. Right and wrong are culture-specific and the ability to understand a culture on its own terms rather than using the standards of your own culture can be very beneficial when doing this kind of work. Sorta like what your mom always said, “don’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”.
This is a very simplified explanation of cultural relativism, a concept which is actually a very complex. Working and living in Carriacou however, brings this concept to mind daily as I interact with the friendly kayaks (what people from Carriacou call themselves), the expat population who now call Carriacou home, the tourists visiting the island and the other volunteers. I am hardly the person to get into a philosophical debate about this topic but I will say it can be hard to reconcile my own personal beliefs on animal welfare and sustainable veterinary volunteerism with that of the expat and tourist population. I feel it is important that foreign volunteers remember this is not their home and not their culture. Respect for the local people and their way of life is imperative to the success of the project. We are here to support the veterinary needs of the island dogs and cats based on what is culturally relevant for Carriacou. This may look quite different than how we care for our own dogs and cats at home but without sensitivity and respect for cultural differences, the project will be doomed from the start. How do you react when someone treats you in either a patronizing way or simply tells you your ideas have no merit and are wrong? For most of us, this attitude ends the conversation and becomes a huge roadblock to progress and change.
Let me give you an example. You live in Canada, or the USA or the UK or perhaps France (you get the idea, you are from a culture of privilege). You travel to a little island in the Caribbean (or Malaysia, or Malawi) for a much needed holiday and a chance to see a new part of the world. You get off the plane, it is hot, muggy and you are immediately hit with new sounds, smells and find yourself in a world remarkably different than where you came from.There is a period of adjustment and some culture shock, which you may or may not have anticipated. As you walk to dinner at a fine restaurant the guidebook recommended, you pass several “street” dogs who are in various states of poor health. Thin to the point of emaciated, perhaps limping, perhaps they look mangy. But the dogs seem so sweet and so friendly and as you eat your expensive meal (by local standards) you think about those hungry dogs. You want to help but how? You give one a pet as you leave the restaurant and the poor thing follows you back to your hotel. He is waiting outside the next morning and greets you with hopeful eyes. You save a little of your breakfast and bring it home for him and by the end of your holiday, you’ve fallen in love and want to take him back to Canada, or the USA, or the UK or perhaps France.
So what’s the big deal and is there anything wrong with this scenario?On one hand, it happens all the time and for that individual dog, should you manage to work out the paperwork and red tape to adopt the sweet creature and give it a life of luxury, where is the harm?I am not saying this is wrong, I am just suggesting that people need to look at the bigger picture.That dog most likely had an owner and it is quite possible the owner does love their dog but does not have the financial resources or knowledge to provide better care. Most likely in this culture dogs are not kept in fenced yards and wander and find food where they can. If you had not fed him, he probably would have gone home. When you “rescue” one dog you need to realize it will be quickly replaced by another who will soon be leading the same life as the animal you rescued. While you can feel good about what you did and you can take comfort knowing that you made a difference for one animal, don’t fool yourself into thinking this is really making a difference to the local dog population. In fact, you may have damaged the relationship between the “locals” and the veterinary volunteers working in that country. Your skin is the same color as theirs, you came and basically stole a dog. How will this action be perceived? Perhaps the local population will doubt the intentions of the veterinary project working in that community? Your actions may contribute to a feeling of distrust between the local people and the volunteers. “They say they are here to help us and our animals but how can we trust them if they allow our dogs to be stolen?”Obviously, I am making a point here and trying to give an example of how our actions, however well-intentioned, may actually create more harm than good. Making a difference is hard work. It is complicated. It means being culturally sensitive, carefully considering the consequences of your actions and ideally, being in it for the long haul. Perhaps, most importantly, it means leaving your judgment and moral superiority at home.
I wonder if I am becoming jaded because I now cringe whenever I hear or see this quote “Saving one animal will not change the world, but the world will change for that one animal”. I understand the sentiment and agree that it is better to do something than to stand by and do nothing but I also think we need to explore the ramifications of our actions and be sure we are basing them on not only what is best for ONE animal, but also what is best for the entire POPULATION. Remaining idealistic is hard when faced with so much suffering. If I can be honest with you, I struggle to know if our volunteerism over the last few years is just a self-centered quest for meaning or if it actually makes a difference. But then, on a good day, I remind myself and truly believe that it is the small acts of kindness that accumulate and end up making the world a better place. Perhaps I just have too much time for self-reflection?
I recently listened to an interesting TED talk, “The happy secret to better work” by Shawn Anchor and it got me thinking about the challenges facing our profession. Challenges that include burnout, compassion fatigue and a high rate of suicide. Shawn has hit on some key ideas worth examining. Ideas that may provide some insight into how to “reprogram” our profession and find the joy again in what we do as veterinarians.
The path to success in veterinary medicine is clearly laid out; work hard and study relentlessly. Strive for top grades, get experience in the profession and don’t give up even if it takes several years to get that acceptance letter. Veterinarians are not lacking in determination, focus and work ethic and it is that stubborn determination combined with hard work and a pinch of luck, that got most of us into veterinary school. We learned the importance of setting goals and pushing ourselves to the limit, in order to reach those goals. Once achieved, we set new, loftier goals and drive ourselves towards these new benchmarks. Always, in the back of our minds is a voice telling us to keep working, just a little more, just a little longer because when you reach that goal you will be happy.Life will be good.
I was one of those people who decided to become a veterinarian at a young age. Growing up on a family farm, my exposure to the profession was through our family’s veterinary practice; a group of mixed animal practitioners, who worked on all species but whose primary focus was large animals. I watched them treat bloat, perform cesareans on cows and save my horse from grass founder.It fascinated me and I immediately decided that THIS is what I was going to not just DO, but BE.I was determined to become a vet and as a teenager, I volunteered, worked hard and hung around our family’s practice long enough that they eventually gave in and offered me a summer job.As I worked towards my goal, I was not dissuaded by people, including a high school guidance counselor and my own dad, who told me either I was not smart enough or resilient enough to become a vet. I stubbornly refused to give up and in the end, this tenacity and work ethic resulted in acceptance to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Following graduation, it was a given that I would return to my roots, mixed animal practice in rural Alberta. The overriding goal was to settle into a rural community, buy into a practice and build a life as a small town veterinarian. At the time it was not only all I knew, but it was also what was expected of me. This was the picture of my future I had visualized for most of my childhood and university years.
Those early years had their challenges but they also set the stage for a newly married couple to learn how to support each other and work together as veterinarians. In a busy rural practice, you spend the months of January to March either pulling something out of a cow or pushing something back in!It was a steep learning curve and as a recent graduate, I vividly recall being called out for one of the most difficult calvings of my career.I arrived at the farm to discover a small heifer presenting with the calves entire head protruding from the birth canal. Both front legs were back against the calves body and, while the calf was still alive, its head was terribly swollen. I needed to push the head back through pelvis in order to bring the front legs forward and pull the calf through the birth canal. After trying every trick I could think of, that swollen head would not budge. In desperation, I decided to perform a cesarean. Maybe, I reasoned, once I had the uterus open, I could pull on the calves hindlegs while the farmer pushed on the head and we could free it from the birth canal. It seemed like a good plan but after pulling and pushing, grunting and swearing I found myself no further ahead. Now I had a heifer that was down, with an open uterus and a live calf still stuck in the pelvis. My boss was unreachable, Rob was out on another farm call and I was out of ideas and starting to panic. Just as I started to melt down, I felt an arm go around my back and a calm voice said: “Don’t worry doc, we’re in this together and we will get that fella out”. I will never forget the acceptance and kindness shown to a very green veterinarian in that first year in practice.
We survived, and in that year and gained more experience than we ever imagined possible. Despite a welcoming community, we realized we needed to find a practice with more support and mentorship.We left that first job and joined a multi-doctor practice with hopes of settling into a new community and finding that elusive happiness. Fast forward four years.We are now partners in that multi-doctor practice and the life plan, as I envisioned it all those years ago, appears to be right on track. Get into vet school, check. Become a mixed animal practitioner in Alberta, check. Become a practice owner, check.Start a family…wait a minute, you want to have kids? As a female large animal vet? What are your plans for the calving season?Will you still be able to cover call?How dare you become pregnant and start a family without discussing this with your partners? No congratulations were forthcoming and our excitement about starting a family was temporarily put on hold as we dealt with the many issues that had been simmering under the surface of this so-called partnership. Looking back, my pregnancy was simply the final straw in a partnership that was doomed from the beginning. There was never any intention to mentor and support the new owners with the goal of transitioning the practice to a younger generation. One dominant, narcissist partner called the shots and during a downturn in business, rather than look for solutions it was easier to find a scapegoat and place blame.
Making the decision to dissolve the partnership and leave Alberta was one of the hardest decisions of my career. Not only did we stand to lose a large amount of money, we also stood to lose our identity as veterinarians. The meticulous picture of my life plan, painted in my mind over the last 14 years, was being redrawn. Who was I if not a rural, mixed animal veterinarian? I felt like a failure. I was mentally defeated and for the first time since deciding to become a vet and I seriously questioned whether I had made the right career choice. I had worked hard, followed the path that was supposed to lead to success and therefore happiness. So why was I so unhappy?Was I a failure if I walked away from this partnership?
Our culture has programmed us to follow a specific formula for success and happiness which goes something like this:If I work hard enough, I will be successful. If I am successful, I will be happy. This constant push to reach new goals and link the achievement of these goats to your happiness is a dangerous path. While strong work ethic, stubborn determination, and focus (or what is commonly called grit) are needed for success in veterinary medicine, I sometimes wonder if our profession has taken it too far.If happiness is only achieved by becoming successful perhaps it is time to rewrite our definition of success. Through my failed partnership, I learned that grit will take you far but it is equally important to know when to walk away. All the grit and determination in the world cannot change a bad situation into a good one. Quitting doesn’t always equal failure, instead, it can be a new beginning, a chance to change your narrative and create your own definition of success. When struggling with the decision to leave our partnership, I recall a colleague saying to me “You can’t row a boat that isn’t moving”.When you are stuck, you may need to get out of the boat and push it into the current. It takes courage, but trust me, the momentum will take you where you need to go.